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An Oration Delivered Before The Cincinnati Astronomical Society by John Quincy Adams , 1843

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An Oration Delivered Before The Cincinnati Astronomical Society, On The Occasion Of Laying The Corner Stone Of An Astronomical Observatory On The 10th Of November, 1843. By John Quincy Adams.


Fellow Citizens of the Astronomical Society of Cincinnati, Fellow Citizens, Ladies and Gentlemen

When the people of thirteen colonies separately chartered by a succession of English kings, on a portion of the continent of North America, united to assume to themselves the transcendent powers of sovereignty, and to declare the ties of their allegiance to their sovereign beyond the seas, forever dissolved, they appealed for their justification in the performance of an act, which, without that resort would have been a crime of the deepest dye that can be committed by human hands – Treason against their country, to the Supreme judge of the world, and to the primitive rights bestowed by Him upon them and upon all mankind by the laws of nature, antecedent and paramount to all human association, or human government – They appealed to their rights as men, and they declared that they held those rights to be self-evident truths – That they held them in common with all mankind ; because all men were born equal – That bestowed as they were by God, their creator, they never could be divested of them, by the might of others – That unless forfeited by his own wrong every individual of the human race comes into being, endowed with those rights, and that if the whole compass of human power could be concentrated in one arm, it would be impotent to take away, however it might ravish or prostrate those rights personified in the meanest individual of the breed of man crawling upon the face of the earth.

What an exalted and sublime idea of the character of man ! How must our nature swell with pride, at the consciousness of being members of a community by the fundamental principles of which, every soul belonging to it, is born to the inheritance of freedom ; — Born with rights which he may forfeit by his own wrong, but otherwise inaccessible to human power ! Government had never before been explicitly declared to be based on this foundation. Governments had by the people of England been declared to be founded on a compact between the sovereign and the people, and they had been classified as monarchies, aristocracies, or democracies, all of which had been said to be liable to degenerate : the monarchy into tyranny, the aristocracy into oligarchy, and the democracy into ochlocracy or the government of a lawless multitude. But it was admitted on all sides, by the votaries of each of the three simple forms, that government once instituted necessarily be absolute and unlimited. And although the existence of primitive rights belonging to man at his birth, was admitted, it was asserted, that by entering into the social compact, man surrendered all his rights, and took in return, such as the ruling power was pleased to bestow upon him. The Declaration of Independence acknowledges no such principle. It recognizes no despotism, monarchial, aristocratic or democratic. It declares individual man, born with rights, of which, while blamelessly possessed, no government can deprive him. But the very nature of the grant, the right can be possessed, only upon the condition, of respecting the same rights in all other men. The laws of nature and of nature’s God therefore are laws of duty, as well as laws of right. Nature says to every individual man, your rights are all held by the tenure of reverence for the same rights, in all other men. If you infringe the right of any other man, you place yourself at war with your brother, and in assailing any one of his rights, you make him the master of your own.

The natural equality of mankind, is thus the parent of universal freedom. It follows irresistibly, from the fact, that man is at once a rational and social being. His reason is given him by his Creator to govern his conduct through life, and he can neither be deprived of it by violence, nor can he transfer it to another. And hence the rights derived from it, are declared inalienable.

There is a point of view, from which this new modeling of the institution of civil society, is to be considered, with reference to the special subject upon which I have been honored with your invitation at this time to address you. The intuitive genius of Shakespeare, which made the creative imaginations of the drama, the vehicle of inspiration to the noblest maxims, and the sublimest principles of morals, has said, in one of his immortal conceptions—

“Nature never lends

“The smallest parcel of her excellence,

“But like a thrifty goddess she determines

“Herself the glory of a creditor—

“Both thanks—and use.”

The license of poetry, substitute the name of Nature, as the handmaid of omnipotent Creator of the worlds, and allows her to prescribe the conditions, and to exact the returns to the bounties which he bestows upon the creatures of his hands. It is God, the grants of whose favor, are instruments of beneficent power, and who in imparting them to his rational offspring, exacts the twofold return of thanks, and use. And thus the acknowledgment of the unalienable right of man to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, is at the same time an acknowledgment of the omnipotence, the omniscience and the all-pervading goodness of God. Man thus endowed, is a being of loftier port, of larger dimensions, of infinitely increased and multiplied powers, and of heavier and deeper responsibilities, than man invested in no such attributes or capacities. If then it be true, that man is born with unalienable rights, among which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, it is equally true, that he is born under the deepest and most indispensable duties of ceaseless gratitude to his Maker, for the grant of these endowments, and of exercising, maintaining and supporting them, by all the faculties, intellectual and physical, with which he has been provided to that end. Nor is the duty less peremptory and irremissible, of holding and enjoying these rights, with the inviolate respect and observance of the same rights in others.

…Now the position to which I would invite your earnest and anxious consideration, is this : That the form of government, founded upon the principle of the natural equality of mankind, and of which the unalienable rights of individual man, are the cornerstone, is the form of government best adapted to the pursuit of happiness, as well of every individual, as of the community. It is the only actual or imaginable human government, in which self-love and social are the same ; and I think I am fully warranted in adding, that in proportion as the existing governments of the earth, approximate to, or recede from, that standard, in the same proportion, is the pursuit of happiness, of the community, and of every individual belonging to it, promoted or impeded, accomplished or demolished. It is the true republic of Montesquieu –the government, of which virtue is the seminal principle, and that virtue consisting of the love implanted in every bosom of the community of which it is a member.

Of such a government, intense patriotism must be the vital spark ; animated by the immortal spirit of Christian benevolence, which enjoins self-love as the standard of brotherly affection, and proclaims all mankind as a brotherhood of one kindred blood. The whole soul of every citizen of such a republic, must be devoted to improve the condition of his country and of mankind ; while liberty allows and stimulates him to the constant exercise of all the faculties of body and of mind, with which he has been endowed by his Creator, to elevate, adorn and beautify the land of his nativity, or of his choice.

[John Quincy Adams then proceeds to elaborate, for his Cincinnati audience, the whole development of the science of astronomy from the very beginnings as early man gazed at the lights of the firmament in bewilderment, to the advent of Greek observations and hypotheses about the night sky, up to the modern age. Finally we quote here the concluding remarks of JQA’s Oration—GG.]

…But when our fathers abjured the name of Britons, and “assumed among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station, to which the laws of Nature, and of Nature’s God, entitles them,” they tacitly contracted the engagement for themselves, and above all, for their posterity, to contribute, in their corporate and national capacity, their full share ; aye, and more than their full share, of the virtues, that elevate, and of the graces that adorn the character of civilized man. They announced themselves, as reformers of the institutions of civil society. They spoke of the laws of Nature, and in the name of Nature’s God ; and by that sacred abjuration, they pledged us, their children, to labor with united and concerted energy, from the cradle to the grave, to purge the earth of all slavery—to restore the race of man, to the full enjoyment of those rights, which the God of Nature, had bestowed upon him at his birth—to disenthral his limbs from chains—to break the fetters from his feet, and the manacles from his hands, and to set him free, for the use of all his physical powers, for the improvement of his own condition. The God in whose name they spoke, had taught them, in the revelation of his gospel, that the only way in which man can discharge his duty to him, is, by loving thy neighbor as himself, and doing with him, as he would be done by,—respecting his rights, while enjoying his own, and applying all his emancipated powers of body, and of mind, to self-improvement and improvement of his race.

Among the modes of self-improvement, and social happiness, there is none so well suited to the nature of man, as the assiduous cultivation of the arts and sciences. The opportunities and dispositions of individuals, for the cultivation of any one specific art or science, are infinitely diversified. One general impulse nerves the arm, and animates the soul, but, in giving direction to that impulse, every one may best follow the bent of his own inclination. We have been sensible of our obligation to maintain the character of a civilized, intellectual, and spirited nation. We have been, perhaps, over boastful of our freedom, and over sensitive to the censure of our neighbors. The arts and sciences, which we have pursued with most intense interest, and persevering energy, have been those most adapted to our common condition. We have explored the seas, and fathomed the depths of the ocean, and we have fertilized the face of the land. We—you—you, have converted the wilderness into a garden, and opened a paradise upon the wild. But have not the labors of our hands, and the aspiration of our hearts, been so absorbed in toils upon this terraqueous globe, as to overlook its indissoluble connection even physical, with the firmament above ? Have we been of that family of the wise man, who, when asked where his country lies, points, like ANAXAGORAS, with his finger to the heavens.

Suffer me to leave these questions unanswered. For, however chargeable we may have been, with inattention or indifference, to the science of Astronomy, heretofore, —you, fellow citizens, of Cincinnati—you, members of the Astronomical Society, of this spontaneous city of the West, will wipe that reproach upon us, away. That edifice, of which, under your charge, the corner stone is now to be laid, will rise, a lasting monument of your ardent and active zeal, to connect the honor of your country, with the constant and untiring exploration of the firmament of heaven ; and may the blessings of Him, who, from his lofty throne, rules the universe in wisdom and goodness, crown your labors with success.

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